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More than 170 homes planned for Abingdon farm has neighbors wary

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For many years, Abingdon farmer Norman Hooker could come out of his house before sunrise to start his workday, look across the fields that have been in his family for nearly 120 years and see nothing but woods in the distance.

These days, Hooker, 66, no longer farms, but as the operator of landscaping, firewood and tree service businesses, he still gets out while it's dark.

When he looks to the east from his Laurel Bush Road homestead, he sees lights from houses which have recently been built on top of a hill, the latest dwellings to sprout up as the farms and woods around the Hooker property have given way to subdivisions.

If Harford County planning and zoning officials approve, Hooker's farm, one of the few areas along Laurel Bush which is not part of a residential neighborhood, will become a subdivision as well.

"I hate to let it go," he said Wednesday.

Hooker and his wife, Joyce, are selling 107.65 acres at the intersection of Laurel Bush and Falkland Drive where he, his father Willard and grandfather Edward raised crops, dairy and beef cattle.

A visitor to the Hooker property can look in any direction and see houses. Norman Hooker said he and his wife have dealt with trespassers, and must navigate Laurel Bush Road among other drivers speeding along at 60 mph.

"It's time to get out of Dodge," Hooker said.

Architecture, engineering and planning Morris & Ritchie Associates Inc. of Abingdon and Pennsylvania-based homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc., which has built a number of luxury-home communities in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. region., are seeking county approval to build the subdivision.

Existing Toll Brothers developments in Harford County include Tollgate Village and The Estates at Cedarday, both around Bel Air, according to the company website. It also maintains Maryland Division offices in Columbia and at the Maryland and Delaware beaches.

Representatives of Morris & Ritchie and Toll Brothers attended a meeting of Harford County's Development Advisory Committee Wednesday, during which Amy DiPietro, the project manager and an engineer with Morris & Ritchie, presented a concept plan for 172 housing units, including single-family homes and townhouses.

The concept plan includes a provision to set aside 67 acres for "open space." At least five of those acres will be designated for "active open space" uses such as a walking trail, according to a transcript of a March 5 Community Input Meeting at Morris & Ritchie's Abingdon office.

The transcript is posted on the DAC website, along with a copy of the concept plan. The property is zoned for residential and agricultural use.

Two entrances from Laurel Bush Road will also be built; a roundabout will be constructed at the intersection of Laurel Bush and Falkland, the site of one entrance, and another entrance will be built just to the north.

Joyce Hooker also attended Wednesday's DAC meeting, along with at least 10 neighbors who live in communities around the property, such as Box Hill North and Overview Manor.

Joyce Hooker said during the public comment portion that "we didn't really want to leave."

She added: "We're surrounded [by houses]; we really can't farm there. . . . It's just driving me crazy there."

The neighbors at the meeting encouraged DAC members to recommend the county take measures beyond what the developer is required by law to do to mitigate traffic impacts – Mike Rist, DAC member and civil engineer with the Harford County Department of Public Works, said the county has no plans to widen the two-lane Laurel Bush Road.

Many neighbors decried building a traffic circle at Falkland and Laurel Bush, and suggested the county instead close the access from Falkland.

Box Hill North residents could get to and from their community via Laurentum Parkway, which runs roughly parallel to Laurel Bush until Laurel Bush veers to the north and takes drivers to Bel Air South Parkway and Route 24, whereas Laurentum takes drivers to Box Ridge Drive and Emmorton Road, about two miles farther south.

The developer and engineers proposed the traffic circle at Falkland to slow speeding drivers. The neighbors claimed traffic circles on other county thoroughfares do not, however, deter aggressive motorists.

"We have three daughters that drive and I'm scared to death for them," said Robyn Kalwa, president of the Box Hill North Homeowners' Association.

Some residents say they are willing to sacrifice convenience for the safety of neighborhood drivers and pedestrians, especially children who walk to and from the nearby William S. James Elementary School, which is along Laurentum Parkway in the western end of Box Hill North.

"If that's what it takes to protect our children..., " Kalwa said.

Kalwa and Karen Novakoski, a Box Hill North resident and former member of the HOA board, said several children have been hit by vehicles and injured while walking in the Box Hill North neighborhood.

"Our community is based on children," Novakoski said.

Many of the neighbors present Wednesday noted traffic has become "a nightmare" in Bel Air South and Abingdon as the areas have grown over the years.

Diane Davis, a board member for the Overview Manor HOA, suggested extending the boundaries of Harford County's development envelope to allow growth in areas farther north of Bel Air, which would alleviate the pressure around the county seat.

"Go up further on [Route] 24," she said. "We're just putting so much load on this corridor, it just concerns me."

Moe Davenport, chairman of the DAC, told Davis "options of expanding the development envelope have been frowned upon."

Davenport said after the meeting the developers must submit a more detailed preliminary plan to DAC, which will determine if the plan meets all county codes and mitigates impacts to traffic, local schools, fire protection, emergency response and other services.

The committee will then make a recommendation on approval to the Department of Planning and Zoning, if the plan is in compliance.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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